In my humble (and just a teeny bit biased) opinion, there is no other sport in the world like BJJ (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu). Apart from the long list of benefits (self-defense, fitness, friendships, etc,), nothing beats the pure joy of a good roll.
But let’s face it, we know it’s not easy to start BJJ. Looking at the sea of sweaty people grabbing, choking and twisting each other – it takes a lot of courage to step onto the mat for the first time. Especially as a female. The unfortunate reality is that there are still not that many women training BJJ and it can be daunting to join a sport where you are the minority.
Nevertheless, the number of females training BJJ has been gradually increasing and it will soon become easier for females to train in this sport. Till then, here is some advice I can offer for females starting BJJ. Firstly, find a good school and reach out to the BJJ online community. During your first few lessons, get to know your fellow students and don’t be afraid to ask others to roll with you. In addition, be open to rolling with everyone, but stick to safe opponents. Last but not least, BJJ is a vigorous sport so take care of your body.
Find a good school
This is one of the most important things when starting out in BJJ. For both the ladies and gentlemen. A good school will cultivate your passion for BJJ, while a bad school might just extinguish it. Check out our articles to find out what are the signs of a good BJJ school and how to choose a safe BJJ gym for women. Finding the right school for you might take some time and effort, but it will be worth it. Do your research: ask for recommendations from friends who do BJJ or visit online BJJ forums. Google the gyms online and read their reviews. Go for trial classes.
If you are just starting BJJ, you might feel more comfortable training with other females. If so, you can consider female-only classes, which are becoming increasingly common. Find out if there are such classes on offer in your area. That said, as you become more familiar with the sport, I do encourage you to eventually branch out and roll with everyone, regardless of gender. I will elaborate more in a later section.
Reach out to the community
There is a pretty big online BJJ community and there are a number of social media groups for women in BJJ who are very supportive. Check out Girls in Gis and BJJ Master Women. There are thousands of experienced female grapplers in these groups who will be happy to answer your questions about starting BJJ or discuss anything related to BJJ. .
Get to know your fellow students
As with starting at any new place (new school, new job, new neighborhood), it will be best if you can take the initiative to approach your fellow BJJ students and introduce yourself. Sounds daunting? Try approaching someone who might have something in common with you (i.e. another white belt female). Start off by explaining you are new to BJJ and ask some questions (How long have they been training? How is the class typically structured? Where to buy the best gis/rashguards/spats?) Most BJJ students understand how challenging it can be for a newcomer and they will be glad to help you.
Note: It is customary to bump fists and slap hands before every roll, and to shake your partners’ hands and thank them after each roll.
Make the first move
As a new female student to BJJ, don’t take it personally if no one approaches you to roll. People typically feel more comfortable asking their own friends (BJJ practitioners may be lean, mean grappling machines but we do have a shy side!). Some men might also worry if “the new girl will be okay to roll with a sweaty male stranger”. So take a deep breath and just go up to someone (preferably similar size) and ask him/her to roll.
Sometimes, people might reject you because they already have a partner for the next roll, or they need to rest for one round. Don’t get discouraged. Ask them if they are up for the roll after next. From personal experience and observations, seldom have I have encountered rejections on the mat.
Everyone is equal on the mats
The BJJ community prides itself on our diversity on the mats. We might argue on Gi versus No-Gi, whether leglocks should be allowed, pulling guard versus takedowns, etc. – but really, everyone is equal on the mats. Well, actually we are differentiated by belt colors, but I mean people from all backgrounds are equal. Nationality, race and socio-economic factors all don’t matter.
I will admit that size, age and gender are slightly more tricky as they pertain to tangible differences in rolling. We all just need an open mind. A bigger person might be heavier, but a smaller opponent might be more “slippery”. An older practitioner might be more experienced, but a younger student might be more energetic. A male might be stronger, but a female might be more flexible. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses.
We don’t have to roll the same way with everyone either. For example, you might go hard on a friend who is the same size and belt rank as you. But you might go lighter on someone physically smaller. Allow the person to try out offensive moves while you work on your defence.
So…should I roll with men?
There have been an increasing number of females-only classes or open mats. I feel that these are great in helping female beginners get comfortable with the sport. Or even for experienced grapplers to have a chance to train with other females their own size and strength.
However, I personally believe that women should roll with men and vice versa. Or to put it even simply, we should be open to rolling with everyone. There shouldn’t be any discrimination on the mats. Training with all sorts of grapplers of varying genders, size, strength, flexibility, ability, age, etc. will just make you a better grappler.
BJJ is a close contact, grappling sport. Your opponents will be grabbing you, smushing their bodies against you and you will be exposed to all sorts of potentially uncomfortable situations. The harsh reality is that you might have to consider taking up another sport if all these make you queasy.
I won’t deny there are douchebags out there (male and female) who might use this to take advantage of others – just avoid them. You will find that the majority of BJJ practitioners have no ulterior motives when rolling. When you are struggling to survive a choke or striving for a submission, there just isn’t any time or energy to focus on cheap thrills.
Don’t roll with people you feel unsafe with
That said, you need to choose your training partners wisely. You want to train with people who will give you a good challenge, but in a safe manner. Injuries are part and parcel of any sport but there are some over-competitive grapplers who are just not worth the risk. As a female just starting BJJ, stick to safe training partners until you gain enough experience to protect your body against more aggressive opponents.
Attitude/ego, rolling style, experience and size are factors which you can consider when deciding if a person is safe to roll with. Avoid opponents who are very egoistic and have combative rolling styles. In general, an experienced grappler of similar size to you will be a better fit. But I must point out that I have felt very safe rolling with some people much bigger than me. On the other hand, I have encountered careless and dangerous moves while rolling with certain small-sized grapplers. The mentality and rolling style of the opponent are the most important factors.
Take care of your body
BJJ is a very intensive sport and you need to take good care of your body. It’s easy to just skip the warm-ups and afterclass stretches – but these are essential if you want to lessen the risk of injuries. Think long-term. It might just be a small ache now but it can escalate into something more serious in the long-run.
Rest, recover, recuperate. When I first started BJJ, all I wanted to do was to train everyday, all day. Years later, I realize how foolish that was. Rest days are crucial for your body to recover from the strenuous training sessions. If you force yourself to train, you might get injured or just turn in a lousy performance. Rest to fight another day!
BJJ is a personal, lifelong journey
As a female starting BJJ, there is a good chance that you will be one of the smallest students in class. It will be a challenge training and rolling with bigger and stronger partners. You will encounter failures again and again – when you fail to pull off a new technique, when you fail to complete a submission, when you fail to escape a control position, when you fail to defend a submission. But don’t be discouraged. Continue practicing and focus on honing your technique. Your technique will get better and you will get stronger (all that drilling and rolling are perfect strength and cardio exercises!).
Being smaller, you are “forced” to be very technical. Small-sized female BJJ practitioners often end up more technically sound than their bigger counterparts. After all, BJJ isn’t about strength and power. Jiu-jitsu techniques are about using leverage and timing so that a smaller person can overcome bigger opponents.
BJJ is not some two-year certification camp. It is a lifelong practice with countless things to learn and improve on. This is true for all practitioners regardless of experience, gender, size and age. So take your time to explore this great art. BJJ is a very personal journey. You are not accountable to anyone but yourself.
In our next article, we will look at some practical tips for females starting BJJ.